A paralyzed veteran from Mass City is up walking around for the first time in nearly three decades with the help of a robotic exoskeleton.
58-year-old Dean Juntunen is a medically retired captain from the Air Force who was severely injured in a fall in 1991. He volunteered to take part in a study at the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
Juntunen has been training to use the device, which allows him to move in ways he has not done so in 27 years. “I had not gone from a sitting to a standing position since 1991, so just doing that is fun. It’s fun to from sitting to standing and then I start walking with the robot and I can’t really feel it or control it. I’ve got a complete spinal cord injury so I’m paralyzed from the ribcage down, basically,” said Juntunen.
Juntunen has been working at the Milwaukee VA but was walking around the Copper Country Mall Monday so those who will be assisting him at home will know how to help him. “I’ve done 15 sessions of advanced training down in Milwaukee in the VA hospital and now we got to train my buddies so that when I take the robot home, they can be my aides because I need a spotter in case something goes wrong,” he said.
Walking with the aid of the robotic exoskeleton takes a tremendous amount of physical effort on the part of Juntunen, requiring him to try and shift his balance back and forth on each foot as his legs are moved. Juntunen said, “When I’m walking with that robot, my mind feels like I’m walking, but in actually it’s more that I’m riding the robot than actually walking.”
Despite his injury, Juntunen remains active and an avid outdoorsman and he views using the machine as just another workout. “I’ve done 91 marathons so far. I got a lifetime goal of a 100 so I’ll be reaching that shortly and then I’m paddling all of the Lake Superior coastline and I only have four paddling days left over on the east side, north of Sault Ste Marie. So this robot is basically a phenomenal workout, actually.”
So how does he feel having all of this attention while he is training? “I don’t really pay much attention to that. I’m Finnish, you know? I can hide in public,” he said.
Juntunen served on the Ontonagon Area School District School Board for over 22 years, including 15 years as president.
For more on this story, please see the VA story from Milwaukee VA: https://www.milwaukee.va.gov/MILWAUKEE/features/Paralyzed_Vet_stepping_forward.asp